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The Art (and Science) of "Trusting Your Gut"

Re-evaluating instinct in the digital age

I almost became a millionaire this morning. I got one of those emails—you’ve probably gotten them too—that guaranteed me a million dollars for basically doing nothing except giving this person just a few numbers. Mind you, they were relatively important numbers (my social security number, my bank account, and PIN) but, gee, a million dollars… It didn’t take a flash of brilliance or intuition to hit delete it but I did register the fact that these scam emails exist because there are people who answer them. I don’t know anyone personally who has.

But I do know a number of people—smart people as it happens and a few of them quite financially sophisticated—who have been the victims of Ponzi schemes, including Madoff’s. I asked one, whom I know rather well, whether her intuition tipped her off—after all, weren’t Madoff’s returns higher than her other ones?—and she shook her head. No gut reaction, no little voice telling you it’s too good to be true? The answer was no. I heard from another person involved in a different scheme who simply said, “You’re not getting it. A con man tells you what you want to hear. There’s no reason to have a gut feeling.”

“My gut keeps it simple”

In a completely unscientific survey, I discover that almost everyone I know—but not everyone as I’ll get to—swears by gut reactions. One woman confides that, “I would say my gut is what has virtually always [been] correct. I am trying to think when it hasn't been and I can't. It’s like answering a test question and then changing your answer. If you change your answer, you will have the wrong answer. Stick with your first, stick with your gut. I think it probably goes back to the fact that we are indeed animals as much as we tend to forget that. We have evolved with too much noise in our lives and if we can stop and listen to ourselves, our instincts, we know what our gut is telling us. At least for me, my heart and head complicate things. My gut keeps it simple. At times it has probably saved my life.” A twenty-five-old says “The gut is the only thing I'm listening to these day. Sounds funny, but it is true. My gut is what has convinced me to leave situations that don't get any better."

They’re really talking about an inner voice—the one that articulates what they’re feeling deep inside.

Can your gut go silent?

The answer is yes—when we are cut off from what we feel or when our feelings and thoughts have been hijacked in childhood by cruel, abusive, or unloving parents who make us doubt our feelings and thoughts, or when the voice in our head isn’t our own but someone else’s or the voice of self-doubt. It took me reams of therapy to hear my inner voice and I’m not alone. One woman talks about her own journey to recover her voice: “All my life I've often had a 'feeling in my gut,' only to be told 'it was all in my head.' It turns out though, that very often my gut has been/is absolutely right. I'm trying to learn to trust it more but overcoming years of conditioning to ignore is a challenge.” Sometimes, the “hijacking” takes on another form as another woman tells me: “I think I've spent a lot of my life distrusting my gut because, when you're an anxious person by nature, your gut is often sending you false messages (for example, ‘You might die if you stand up in front of that room and give a speech’). My father used to say, ‘If you feel ambivalent about something, you shouldn't do it,’ which I think is terrible advice, especially if you have an anxious or phobic temperament, because anxiety tends to make you feel ambivalent about lots of things that it would actually be good for you to do (like giving that speech).

Is intuition always the best route?

Whether called by its popular names—instinct or intuition—science knows this type of thinking is hardwired into the human species. It’s automatic, fast and practically “thoughtless” since it doesn’t require analysis or deep thinking, as Daniel Kahneman explains in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow and elsewhere. This intuitive system obviously had great evolutionary usefulness—permitting human beings to react quickly and effortlessly to things that threatened them or endangered them. When you have a hungry predator lunging at you, the last thing you want to summon up is your inner debate team.

But for all that many people swear by their intuition, science maintains an ongoing skepticism about its efficacy as a one-size-fits-all strategy. This is in part because the intuitive system has a number of downsides which were once useful in evolutionary terms but are likely, in 2013 at least, not to be spectacularly helpful. For example, the brain is likely to offer up the most recent, memorable and vivid example as an answer when we’re deciding how or whether to act. (It’s called the availability heuristic). That was probably a good thing when one of our ancestors saw someone get hit by lightning while standing under a tree and that thought popped into his head when he heard thunder.

Today, as bombarded as we are by stimuli and information basically 24/7, recalling the most vivid may simply lead us to overestimate our chances of winning the lottery, being attacked by a shark, inventing the next Facebook, or writing a bestseller.

It strikes me that the reactivity of the digital world we live in—where all of us fall sway to the “hit send” mentality when it comes to all manner of communication and information—may not be helped by our hardwiring.

It’s not clear whether the slow kind of thinking works in tandem with or interrupts fast thinking, or whether they work sequentially; there are different theories. There’s a pretty lively debate too about which system actually yields better decisions. In a 2013 study, Zohar Rusou and his colleagues set up a study to pit the two systems—intuitive and deliberative—against each other to see whether the superiority of one over the other had to do with the type of decision at hand. Might how good the decision turned out to be depend on the goodness of fit or compatibility between the mode of thinking and the task at hand?

And that’s exactly what they found. Not surprisingly, judgments which involve emotions are more accurate when the intuitive system is at work; situations that require analysis—Is my business going to flounder or succeed? Can I finish that report on time? Am I acquiring too much debt?—are best left to the slower thinking system. So while it’s fine to listen to your gut, make sure the fit is right.

That’s food for thought in the digital age.

Copyright© 2013 Peg Streep

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Rousou, Zohar, Dan Zakay, and Marius Usher, “Pitting intuitive and analytical thinking against each other: The case of transitivity,” Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

June 2013, Volume 20, Issue 3, pp 608-614